November 29, 2015

Spotlight on Ninth Street Elementary

Playground, Ninth Street School

Playground, Ninth Street School

Last week I attended a “Meet the Principal” event at Ninth Street Elementary, the zoned school for most of downtown LA. The school is reopening on Tuesday after being closed for a three-year, $54 million renovation of the campus. The school, located on 9th Street and Towne Avenue in the Fashion District, was in deep trouble before the closure. In 2010, LA Weekly wrote a devastating profile of the school, describing it as among the worst in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). At the time of its closure, the school’s API score (a measure of academic performance of California schools) was 670, far below the state target of 800, and it ranked 1 out of 10 on LAUSD’s “similar schools” ranking, making it one of the worst among its peers. It was Ninth Street’s terrible performance that led in part to a group of downtown parents forming Metro Charter elementary school (coincidentally also opening this fall).

Given Ninth Street’s history, I was curious to see the new campus and meet the folks who will be running the reopened school—a curiosity that deepened when the new principal and one of the school’s teachers reached out to me by email and invited me to visit. The principal, Dean Simpson, is not your average administrator—he has spent the past decade teaching, coaching and mentoring principals and teachers on effective teaching practices, lesson design, and professional development. I think that Simpson’s appointment is a clear signal that LAUSD is bringing out the big guns for Ninth Street and really wants this school to succeed.

Ninth Street Elementary Principal Dean Simpson

Ninth Street Elementary Principal Dean Simpson

When I first saw the new campus, I was seriously impressed. The campus (which the school shares with Ninth Street Middle School, a charter school run by the educational non-profit Para Los Niños) includes 33 classrooms housed in two buildings, a library, a gymnasium/assembly space, separate play areas for kindergarten, elementary and middle school students, and wireless Internet access for all students. The campus courtyard features a lawn and a vertical garden on one wall. The outer walls of the campus are made of zinc, giving it a look reminiscent of Disney Hall (and also providing extra security to a school located right next to Skid Row). The campus truly is a gem, making Ninth Street one of the most beautiful schools in LAUSD.

Daunting Challenges
But when the Meet the Principal session began, I got a reality check on the serious problems that will have to be tackled by the school. A representative from Union Rescue Mission was there to ask about busing students from the shelter (the mission provides emergency shelter for approximately 100 children). One family couldn’t afford the $10 per child cost of a TB test that is required of all incoming students. And all of the families were shocked to learn that the school will not provide transportation to most students (only homeless and special education students qualify for busing) and there will be no afterschool care for grades K-1. It was painful to hear parent after parent ask the principal what they were supposed to do with their children when school was dismissed. These are the working poor, folks who have no money for private childcare and no ability to take time off from work without being docked for pay or losing their jobs. Many of them also don’t own cars and are dependent on public transportation (and not in an “I’m a green hipster riding my fixie” kind of way), which means the simple act of taking their children to school every day is a potential hardship.

Vertical garden on Ninth Street School campus

Vertical garden on Ninth Street School campus

The $54 million campus is beautiful but the problems facing Ninth Street are daunting. In the words of an LAUSD report, “This school serves some of the most underprivileged students in the District, some of whom come from temporary housing and homeless shelters.” In the past, the school’s transiency rate–the number of students who enter and leave a school during the year–was an astounding 43.31% in 2009-2010 and 63.75% in 2008-2009. As a point of comparison, Clifford Street Elementary in Echo Park (the school my son attends) last year had a transiency rate of 12%.

I’ve been asked repeatedly whether or not middle-class loft dwellers will send their kids to Ninth Street and after visiting I have to say: Who cares, really? Middle-class folks have options. They may not be ideal options but if you have a car, a professional job and enough education to understand how to navigate the system, your kid will be fine regardless of what school they attend. I doubt most loft dwellers will consider sending their kids to Ninth Street, at least not until they have some proof that the school is safe and that their children can get a good education there. But the real challenge facing Principal Simpson and his team is this: How do you provide a high-quality education to some of the poorest students in the entire county? How do you teach kids who may be coming to school hungry, poorly dressed, sleep-deprived because they live in a crowded, noisy shelter, who may be victims of physical and sexual abuse, who live in homes with no books and without the means to buy even basic school supplies? How do you teach students who may spend only a few months in your classroom before moving to another school? These issues are related to fundamental problems in our society such as growing income inequality and the defunding of our public schools.

I really want to see Principal Simpson and his teachers succeed. I think it would benefit the downtown community a lot if we had a strong and academically performing local school, but that’s incidental to the main goal: Helping the students at Ninth Street to learn and thrive and have a decent shot at a better life. Will the downtown community support these kids or will we avert our eyes the way we do with the homeless on the streets? I hope we’re better than that.

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About Alisa Rivera

Alisa is a writer whose work has been featured in the Oregonian, the Syracuse Post-Standard, Latina magazine and other publications. She has also had her short fiction published in the Berkely Fiction Review and Iris: A Journal About Women. Alisa and her husband, James Hightower, have been happily raising their son, Nathan, in downtown Los Angeles since 2008. You can learn more about Alisa's work at

  • Aziza Hasan

    Right on point. Regardless of how much money the district puts into the school, I’ll be waiting for test scores and personal anecdotes from parents who end up sending their kids to the school– to hear if my child will be safe and able to have stable and lasting relationships with his peers.

  • 2003 Grad

    I went to this school from k-5. I LOVED IT. I’m still in touch with many of my peers from then and am happy to report that almost all of us are attending universities. Not just any universities, but TOP universities. The renovation is nice, the truth of the matter is that it’s the teachers who will make the difference. When I graduated (2003) it was an “ugly” school but I’ll be damned if that prevented it from being an amazing one. We have a page dedicated to how amazing this school was regardless of it’s area. The district just has to find the correct teachers and encourage students. I don’t know what the new plan will be since the gentrification of downtown as of late has brought in children from different backgrounds (before it was almost only poor income/homeless students).

    • DTLAFamilies

      Thank you so much for sharing! I totally agree with this: The renovation is nice, the truth of the matter is that it’s the teachers who will make the difference. I’m really happy to hear that you had a good experience at Ninth Street. I hope that the new principal and teacher will be able to make the school a place where the academics are as amazing as the architecture.

      If you feel comfortable sharing the link, I’d love to see page dedicated to the school. Thanks again for your comment!

  • A Trazo

    Thank you for the compliments on the design of the campus. I am part of the team that designed this project, and I am also a Downtown loft dweller with two kids (one of which will be entering Kindergarten next year). So I am often asked the question if I will send my kids to Ninth Street School. Sometimes it almost feels like I am pressured to send them there. I would love for my children to attend a school that I have a hand in designing. But on the other hand, because I worked on this project, I had to familiarize myself with its surroundings and the population it will serve, and it didn’t leave me with a warm fuzzy feeling. With that in mind, the design addressed the context and we intended to create a vibrant and safe core for the children within a protective building shell.
    I appreciate your comment about those that have options. My sentiments exactly since I am lucky enough to be one those that have options.

    I have visited the school after it opened and it was great to see how much the parents and the students are excited and appreciative of their new learning environment.

    • DTLAFamilies

      Thank you so much for your perspective! It really is a wonderful site and from what I hear the teachers and staff are working hard to deliver a quality educational experience that matches the beautiful building design. Thanks again for stopping by.